What is Competency-Based Learning?

April 23, 2021

The report cards that list grades as letters might be eschewed for an educational approach that emphasizes grading students on mastery and fluency. Competency-based learning typically includes number grades denoting and correlating to a child’s mastery of a particular subject.

While standard grading systems favor grade percentages that correlate to a specific number grade, competency-based learning analyzes the child’s overall performance to assess fluency and mastery and denotes grades in numbers or may not assign grades but instead note the level of progress (e.g. exceeds the standard).

Students might not be expected to master a particular standard until the end of the year, and the competency-based grade may reflect this expectation. For example, children may receive a 2 or a description of “not yet mastered” or a similar descriptor.

Parents, though, might be confused at this new system, preferring the easier-to-understand grading scale of their own youth. Readability’s CEO Ameeta Jain talks to educator Jabez LeBret about why competency-based learning may be our future and why parents should embrace it. 

An Interview with Jabez LeBret

AJ: Hi everyone. Thanks for joining us today. My name is Ameeta Jain. I’m the CEO of Readability. And today we’ll be talking about Competence-Based Learning. What does Competence-Based Learning mean? Why is it so important? And as parents and educators how can we implement or apply this in our homes and school?

I’m super excited because we have an expert in this area to help us through all of this. His name is Jabez Lebret and he’s got a vast bio, and I thought I’d pull out some things that I found really fascinating and interesting about him. Jabez got his start as a financial analyst managing a multimillion dollar P&L at Nordstrom. He has delivered over 1200 presentations around the globe and is a bestselling author and a journalist for NBC and Forbes. He sold his award-winning award-winning marketing agency to pursue an ambitious project in education. After five years of research, Jabez and his wife opened up the nation’s first tuition free all girls school in San Diego, California with a focus on social, emotional learning and competency-based assessment. And what I love is he’s a gin enthusiast and a drinker of coffee in large quantities. Hi, Jabez.

JL: Hello, thank you for having me.

AJ: Thank you for being with us. So let’s just jump right into it. Tell us what is Competence-Based Learning.

JL: So we’re all familiar with our normal traditional grade set for most of us that went to school here in the U.S. We have our A, B, C, D’s and F’s, and that has been the standard approach for many, many, many, many decades. Competency-based assessment is basically trying to focus on proficiency. And so the question is, can we test how much of something you know, and how well you know it? How competent are you? How proficient or what’s your mastery level of that information? Not just, can you give me an answer on a test or fill out a homework assignment and show some sort of single linear answer. It’s really trying to kind of broaden our approach in education to understanding what a student knows.

AJ: Amazing.  When we think about Competence-Based Learning and we’re looking at a classroom setting, what does that look like in a classroom setting?

JL: Yeah, it’s important to understand why classrooms were set up the way that they were set up in the current system that we have now. And it really hearkens back to the industrial age where we needed factory workers. We needed farm workers. We needed to be able to pipeline some students into professional services like lawyers or doctors. But for the most part, we were trying to move people through kind of like an assembly line. And so what we did is we created these classrooms that resembled a kind of a factory. You’ve got rows and rows of chairs. You’ve got the teacher up front and then they’re espousing information. And then they’re trying to make sure that some of that information sticks so that when that student eventually graduates from high school, they may or may not go on to college but whatever they do next, we have kind of a general idea of where they stack up to each other.

How do they fit into the world that we have back in 1905? I mean, we’re talking like over a hundred years ago this system was put into place. Today’s world has dramatically changed over the, I mean not to mention the last 10 years, but the last 30 years. Oh my gosh. Like we have computers in our pockets that we walk around with. I remember my math teacher used to say, “Well it’s not like you’re going “to carry a calculator around with you everywhere you go.” And I was like, “Well, now I actually carry it around with me everywhere I go.” So it begs the question. Should we be changing our approach to how we view knowledge? What kind of knowledge students should learn, and how do we assess that kind of knowledge?

The newest direction and where education is trying to move towards is to say we no longer are as concerned with whether or not you have rote memory of a list of tasks. We are now more concerned with do you know how to learn? Do you know how to think about things analytically? Do you know how to put on a critical thinking cap, to approach problem solving? How do you tackle a problem? How do you build perseverance and how do you build the ability to go out and install something that you’ve never seen before? 

Now, if you’re talking about trying to build that kind of graduate at the end of a high school or college career, what you need to start focusing on is how do you test and how do you assess what they know. Because we all know that what we test is and what we measure is what we get. And so if we’re going to keep measuring in A, B, C, D, F then we’re going to get students that simply are striving towards that rank file. If we’re going to say we want students who know how to learn and understand things and can think about things, we have to change the way that we assess them, and that’s moving towards a competency-based approach.

AJ: Oh my gosh, I love that. And I can imagine a lot of the educators that are watching today saying, “Yes, yes.” Because they are also fighting the system, I think, with our education today and how it is. And I know a lot of parents are not really for the traditional grading system that their child shouldn’t be just put in a box that way. And I 100% agree with the idea of developing critical thinking skills in our kids. And that’s vital to their ability to learn and to do anything really is those critical thinking skills.

JL: Yeah. And if you want to study something like, we landed on the moon in 1969 that is an amazing feat, no question about it, but is it important to know that that happened in 1969 in and of itself as just a date? Not really. What’s more important to us is to understand the geo-political nature of what was happening in the world that led to us feeling as though we had to get to the moon first, right?

We were in this locked battle with the mighty USSR and we were in the Cold War and all of those big things that were pushing this moment in time that seemed very scientific and was, but the science was being driven by the politics as much as it was being driven by the scientist. And understanding those dynamics makes for more well-rounded education and a better suited student to understand that life is about layers. It’s not about just the simple answer we landed in 1969. That really isn’t the most important part of the story. And competency-based approach is a challenge, I think, for some because one, it’s kind of difficult to assess somebody’s proficiency or mastery at something. It takes more time, and it takes a lot of effort. And it’s a little scary as a parent.

You’re a parent, I’m a parent. And I’m thinking, I went to college. I wasn’t very good in K-12, but I did end up getting into college. And it was a great experience. Maybe I want that for my little one. And if I don’t align with the standards, am I now going to miss an opportunity for my child? So I push on the system and I say, no, no, no, no, no, no. I want to see A, B, C, D’s or F’s. I don’t want this competency whatever proficiency mastery, because what I want to see is that my kid can get into XYZ college. And that’s just a need for educating parents on the fact that colleges are shifting the way that they accept students. And that by the time your little one’s going to college if they go, it’s going to be a very different landscape than you or I faced.

AJ: Yeah. And I do see that. And speaking about grades, you and I had talked about this offline. When my son was in fourth grade and flash forward, he took the ACT, got a perfect score without studying. He had like a 4.83 GPA. He took every AP course there was, he worked really hard in high school to have what he thinks he needed to get into college. But when he was in fourth grade, we had a specific teacher that probably had biases and wasn’t healthy for my son. What was subjective was his writing skills. And she kept grading him well below his abilities, even though his third grade teacher said he had such an amazing voice that the summer he should write a book and that she’d help him get it published. To go from that to fourth grade saying “He can’t write.” “He doesn’t know.” “He doesn’t have grammar.” “He doesn’t have sentence structure.” And you’re just like, “How can that be? How could he have gone downhill so fast?”

Even though I had all these meetings with her to try to figure out what was happening, she had biases, and she did mean things in class like she would open up her arms wide to the whole classroom and say, “Competent.” And then to my son just narrow in and point to him and say, “Incompetent” in class, in front of everyone. And he would come home and he would tell me about these things. I talked to the counselor, talked to the principal to no avail. She basically tortured him the entire year.

When it came to the last day of school and I knew he would be getting his report card, I had just made a decision that what she thought and what she was doing was very harmful to my child, and I had to do something that would eliminate or eradicate that harm. And so what I did was I told my son, I said, “You’re going to get your report card today. And I do not want you to look at it. You’re going to hand it to me.” And he said, “Okay.” And I got to school waiting outside his classroom. He came running. He was so excited. And I said, “Did you get your report card?” He said, “I did.” I said, “Did you look at it?” He said, “I didn’t.” I said, “Great hand it to me.” I took that report card and I tore it up.

I tore it up and I kneeled down to him and I said, “What she thinks is irrelevant and inconsequential to you and your future. I do not want you to give her a second thought. You’re brilliant. You’re meant for greatness. And that’s how it is.” And he was so thankful, so relieved that even though he worked so hard and he probably did get fours and maybe she gave him a two in writing, it didn’t matter. None of it mattered to me. It was his emotional wellbeing at that very moment that mattered. And in that summer, I put him in a writing program for young kids. I put both my son and my daughter in there because I needed to change that narrative. I needed to adjust the concepts in his head that he did have abilities. And he was able to express himself.

JL: Your children are lucky to have a parent who is as aware and as able to navigate that sort of situation, right? And I always try to encourage parents who don’t know, maybe it just never dawned on them to think about it that way, that to think that the actual grade is an assigned measurement by the teacher, there is a subjective nature to it, period. And it is not a measure of intelligence or capabilities, right? I mean, I’m a high school dropout. So I got lots of F’s in high school. No problem. That was not the hard part.

AJ: And look at you now.

JL: And it worked out in the long run, despite that and I don’t recommend going to the extreme, but the point is we need to throttle back on the reliance on grades as the measurement and we need to start really asking ourselves what outcome do we want? What do we really want for our children? Do we really want our child to be obsessed with an A or a B, or do we want our child to be obsessed with learning? Obsessed with problem solving? Obsessed with going out there and thinking about things critically? That’s how with tinkering and figuring things out. That’s what we want. Not, “Oh my gosh. If I don’t perform well on this test.”

The pressure and the anxiety and the unnecessary nature of how we’ve approached modern day education is something that we all play a role in. Administrators need to stop leaning in on how easy it is to use grades and test the assessments, numbers. Universities and post-secondary need to continue their work. Parents are a part of this puzzle. Everybody does this in education. Everybody says, “Well, it’s the teachers in the District.” Or the teachers say, “Well it’s the District and the parents.” And then the Districts say, “Well it’s teachers and the parents.” Everybody points to everybody else. We all need to take a step back looking in the mirror and say, “What the heck do we want out of this thing?” Like, what do we really want out of our kids? And let’s build that.

AJ: I love that. And I agree wholeheartedly. And as for the parents who are watching today what are some of the first steps that they can take? Because when you talk about the pressure that is on our kids today, and all the things that they have to do just to get into school, it is crazy. And we see, these kids now have anxiety, they have stress. And we’re seeing a level that has just skyrocketed in the last 15, 20 years. And it’s not okay. So as parents, what is your suggestion that we can do at home to really advance Competence-Based Learning? What can they do?

JL: Step one, knowledge is power. I would say, go check out a really good school to look into, for example, One Stone up in Boise, Idaho. They graduate students with zero GPA’s. They don’t give out GPA’s. And those students go on to plenty of great, amazing, incredible colleges. So make yourself feel comfortable. There are people doing this, and it is working. And arm yourself with a little knowledge. Go to your school, ask the teachers, ask the principal what are they doing when it comes to Competency-Based Learning to understand what are students really proficiently and mastery level understanding of the knowledge.

Remember that your knee jerk reaction for things being done the way that you had them done when you were growing up is not necessarily the best way for them to be done now. And that’s a tough thing to let go. I only know it one way, and it’s a little scary. And so you have to keep reminding yourself there could be a better way, just like there’s a lot of better ways that I do things now than I did 20, 30 years ago. There’s a better way. And let’s embrace that and try to encourage that in our schools and give our kids the freedom to explore those options and really grab on to that kind of learning.

AJ: Well, I think that maybe conversations would be part of that. Where the parents are constantly talking to their kids about what’s happening at school, what they’re learning. And what’s important about what they learn. I know that, for me, when my kids were given books as assignments I loved to read those books with them and just have conversations, stuff like that. And I was never one to really push grades or anything like that on my kids. And it turned out that that was the right way to go because they have excelled in so many ways. My son got a full ride to get his Master’s and that’s incredible. And there was never a focus on grades. It was always like, how does this make you feel? What do you think about this? And so that’s what I think that maybe my suggestion to parents would be is those conversations are so important when it comes to their schoolwork.

JL:  Yeah. And ask about failure. If we want to think about what it really goes into learning something well like becoming a master of something includes a significant amount of missed shots. So if you’re going to excel, missing shots is important and talking to your kids about that is important and saying, “Hey, what did you fail at today?” Or this week?” Like what didn’t go well and didn’t work out. And what can we learn from that?” is a wonderful way to start approaching building up the reflex of competency-based approach as opposed to just simply saying “Regurgitate an answer for me.”

AJ: Right. And I think we’ve all learned in the last 10 years that it’s not really failing, we’re failing up. I like to use the word failing up because those lessons are important. And really we’re just getting better and better as we go through things in life. And we learn from those, it’s all a lesson it’s really never a failure.

JL: Yeah. I want to take failure back. I want to reclaim that word. I want to own that word for a positive, like it’s not a negative thing. And it is taught that way in school. I always thought it was fascinating how the letters go A, B, C, D and they skip E on purpose to go to F, and there’s only one reason why that happens and that should tell you everything you need to know about the grading system and why it’s not a good idea. And it’s not about being soft on our kids’ feelings.

It’s about being smart in the way that we choose to approach learning and being more thoughtful about how we want our outcomes to manifest at the end of their educational journey, which hopefully never ends. And if we want them to be lifelong learners, then we have to start focusing on competency-based approaches and stop focusing on assessment based. Otherwise we’re just never going to get there.

AJ: I always tell my kids, if you’re not learning you’re dying. Learning is a lifelong thing. You’ll never stop learning. So thank you, Jabez. Do you have any last piece of advice for our viewers today, for educators or for parents?

JL: Oh, I always say open up a dialogue. Don’t be afraid to embrace change. The system is changing, and it can feel as though it’s not and it can feel as though there’s nothing you can do about it. But if every one of us takes a little moment to have one more conversation about how we can make this thing better including the students and bringing them into the conversation, I think that we’re going to actually start seeing real change happen that is both necessary and overdue.

AJ: And I agree 100% because I really believe that if we can really expand on these critical thinking skills helping children develop those skills, we can really lift our kids, lift humanity. We’ll have so many thinkers out there, not just people who just follow blindly, but they’re thinking for themselves. And I think our society needs that.

JL: A hundred percent. And don’t forget about the kids who seem like they’re not learning. I was the third grade student who couldn’t read, and it was because of my home life that it just hadn’t happened. I mean, I would have killed for an app like what you guys have at that age but the technology didn’t exist at the time, but do take a step back and think that there is a way to approach and reach those students. And I think competency-based approaches are a magnificent way to really help out. And I just appreciate you sharing the information about this and wanting to share this sort of conversation with your audience because it really is important.

AJ: Thank you, Jabez. I know we’re like-minded in that because reading really is the foundation for all learning. And so if we can teach our children to read well but not just read but comprehend what they’re reading, right? Using those critical thinking skills. When they’re reading we are setting them up for a lifetime of success, because, again, if they can read well they can do anything. And I know that that’s like one of my biggest goals to lift our children through reading. And I really appreciate you, appreciate what you do for the girls in San Diego, California. I know because of COVID that school shut down. And I really hope that that opens up very soon. Things get better.

JL: Thank you. Appreciate that.

AJ: Thank you Jabez. Thanks for having, love to have, having you. Thank you.

JL: Well, thank you for having me. It was a pleasure to be here.

About Jabez LeBret

Jabez was a homeless highschool dropout. After getting his GED he decided to pursue a degree in finance and marketing from Gonzaga University. From there, it was off to the races. He became a financial analyst managing a multi-million dollar P&L at Nordstrom, delivering over 1,200 presentations around the globe, a best-selling author, and a journalist for NBC and Forbes. He is a seasoned entrepreneur who has built and sold multiple companies, even opening a tuition-free all-girls boarding high school for underserved youth.